Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Review of 'The Miniaturist' by Jessie Burton (Audio Book)

Note: This is one of the few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"'There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed...'

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt.  But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming.  Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-- leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home.  To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-- an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways...

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household.  But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-- and fear-- the escalating dangers that await them all.  In this repressively pious society where gold is worshiped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe.  Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them.  Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation... or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth."

I have been looking for more books that take place in the Netherlands or at least are about the Dutch.  When I heard about this book, I was so excited, especially after taking a Dutch history class and learning more about this time period, when the Dutch East India Trading Company was basically the center of the Netherlands' rise to economic power during the Golden Age.

I loved walking through Amsterdam with the main character, Nella, because even though we were in Amsterdam at very different times, I still managed to recognize some places and I could kind of imagine where in the city she was.  I knew where the old city hall was because I walked through it with my French sister Marie when she came to visit me.  I know what the canals look like and I miss them, even just a little bit, every single day.  This was a very nostalgic read for me, if you can't tell.

There were a couple parts of this story that just jumped out and surprised me.  Since this is a blog where I'm not very good about hiding spoilers (books are meant to be talked about), you've been warned...

I didn't expect Nella's husband to be gay, but I was so drawn in once Nella's life possessed this amount of danger and adventure (because otherwise she didn't do very much... women who married into families like the one she married into didn't have to do a lot during this time).  I knew that it wasn't seen as a good thing to be gay, but I don't think I fully realized just how dangerous it was.  For the person who is gay, you can be killed and for the family, you're severely disgraced.  But it was scary how Johannes' sister, Marin, pulled Nella aside and told her that she could tell absolutely no one and that they had known about Johannes even before he and Nella were married.  They wanted to provide her a comfortable life so that Johannes could be spared.  That's how desperate life was for gay and lesbian people.  It's shocking, though not surprising, if that makes sense.

Race relations were another tense area of this book.  I think what surprises me about the areas of race and sexuality in this book is that I'm seeing how these people are treated as opposed to being told that "This is how black/gay people were treated at this time."  It's like being a witness, even though the story is fictional.  Being a witness is scary, to say the least.  Towards the end of the book, we find out that Marin is pregnant (astonishingly, she was able to hide her entire pregnancy... I don't understand...) and when she gives birth, it's clear that of the people the family knows there's only one potential father: Otto, the manservant who happens to be black.  He is no where to be seen at the end of the novel because it's not allowed for him to have any kind of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, with a white woman.  It's dangerous for him to be around.  And I think that that really hit home with me too, seeing and in a way being part of the environment that was so dangerous for him.  Not much has changed...

This is a book that I can't wait to find and put on my personal shelf (if I ever find the space to do so).

I give 'The Miniaturist':
Thanks for Reading!


Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Review of 'Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & A Very Strange Adventure' by Lissa Evans

"Enter a wonderful world filled with real magic, mystery... and danger.

As if being small for his age and also having S. Horten as his name isn't bad enough, now 10-year-old Stuart is forced to move far away from all his friends.  But on his very first day in his new home, Stuart's swept up in an extraordinary adventure: the quest to find his great-uncle Tony-- a famous magician who literally disappeared off the face of the earth-- and Tony's marvelous, long-lost workshop.  Along the way, Stuart reluctantly accepts help from the annoying triplets next door... and encounters trouble from another magician who's also desperate to get hold of Tony's treasures.

A quirky, smart, charming page-turner, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms will enchant young readers-- as well as teachers, librarians, and parents."

I am back with my fifth graders!  This was the first book that we finished reading.  I was attracted to this book by the cover art and the art that appears at almost every chapter.  What kept me reading was, even though I had an idea what was going to happen next a lot of the time, I always wondered how the characters would handle the next situation thrown at them.

I didn't particularly care for the characters... they felt rather flat to me.  Stuart could go from zero to sixty in a flash if the situation were right, the triplets fell into the stereotype that all triplets are the same person times three, Stuart's father was annoying and had unnecessarily complicated syntax when he spoke, and his mother was just distant the whole time... overall, I'm not terribly impressed.  But the plot was interesting because it challenged me to always think a step ahead.  I know my fifth graders appreciated this challenge too.  They really liked the book and when I told them that there was a sequel, they demanded to read it next (which we're not, but perhaps before the semester ends).

This book is very much for younger readers, but as the person reading the book with them and talking about it book-club style, it was still a nice read.  Just maybe not something that I would feel compelled to read again or put on my own shelf at home.

I give 'Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms':
Thanks for Reading!